Thursday, May 6, 2021

1/6 Four Months On

Only four months ago Donald Trump helped incite a right-wing insurrection that invaded the Capitol with the aim of overturning the results of the 2020 election. Most Americans seems to have a vested interest in flushing it down the memory hole. 

Conservatives of course say it's all Not A Big Deal, for obvious, self-serving reasons. A lot of other people just don't want to reckon with its implications, and the fact that one of the two major parties has effectively become a vehicle for the destruction of democracy. That demolishes the "both sides" bullshit that folks in the center believe. For liberals and progressives who aren't willing to fight, it lays a challenge at their feet that they would rather ignore. 

In the meantime the Republican Party is purging those who criticize Trump and the coup, and is busy limiting voting rights and rigging elections. 1/6 was a watershed moment, a sign that our politics is no longer a matter of two parties vying for power, but of a radical right wing movement seeking to gain power through any means necessary against a standard center-left party.

My great fear is that too many people will deny this reality. I think Trump's ban from social media has made it so conservatives can do their dirty work under the cover of night and fog. Florida making it hard to vote doesn't get the same headlines without Trump making some obnoxious comments online about it. State level Republicans are much more free to manipulate the system with the spotlight elsewhere.

Our whole media apparatus certainly has decided to move on. Elite media is full of stories about anti-racist education at prep schools and swanky restaurants going vegetarian. We argue about this stupid shit online all day long while the very democratic process itself is being undermined. With Trump gone and muzzled too many have been lulled into a false sense of security. They think it's 1945 when it's really 1923. 

The only way we avoid 1933 is by maintaining our memory of 1/6 and the knowledge that it can't be allowed to happen again. Right now we still have a long way to go before we get to that understanding.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Notes on Teachers Appreciation Week

America is full of "hero" jobs. These are occupations that come with a lot of public praise, but also the expectation that if you work these jobs you are supposed to keep your mouth shut. The scope of this designation has expanded under COVID with the new term "essential workers." 

While the desk jockeys and bean counters have been able to stay at home, the essential workers have been delivering their groceries, slaughtering their meat, preparing their food, tending to them in the hospital, and yes, taking care of and teaching their children. This work has involved great personal risk (just look at the COVD death rate among line cooks.) It has not been met with additional compensation or power in the workplace. Instead we hear a litany of bosses bitching that they can't get enough workers to beg them for their shit jobs. 

The only added compensation has been in the form of lip service. I am thinking about that a lot this week, which is Teacher Appreciation Week. In normal years I groan a little at the noblesse oblige of it but appreciate the tokens of gratitude that come with it. This year it just makes me angry. 

Few other professions have been forced to so fundamentally change their practice. Each and every lesson I do had to be completely re-thought and done in ways I had never done before, all on the fly. After getting used to the virtual classroom, I then had to transition to the hybrid classroom where my brain must be in real and virtual space simultaneously. I have had to switch modes on a dime with little warning. The bean counters and desk jockeys haven't had to do all that much, except for learning how to use Zoom.

Our reward for our Herculean labors? Nothing.

Or I should say, nothing if we are lucky. If we are unlucky our reward is layoffs, furloughs, and legions of parents attacking us on social media. All the talk of "essential workers" just rings so hollow. I know plenty of parents are legitimately grateful for my work, but being reminded of that is more a salve for their souls than it is a benefit to me. 

It's obvious that if this society "appreciates" teachers it needs to put its money where its mouth is. 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Track of the Week: Flamin' Groovies "Headin' For the Texas Border"

In the last two months I think I have written fewer posts than I ever have in my long and distinguished blogging career. This is a reflection of just how overburdened and stressed I am right now. I went from work 10-11 hour days while commuting to the city two days a week to working 10-11 hour days every day of the week. My commute is chewing up my work and sleep time and I am feeling the effects.

Today in fact I was working furiously to complete my narrative reports for the last term. I managed to do it by playing some songs on repeat. One of them was "Headin' For the Texas Border" by the Flamin' Groovies. We just got some old glorious tower stereo speakers from my wife's parents and this song sounded absolutely glorious when I cranked it on the new system.

The Groovies are one of those bands that should have made it big, in the same category as Big Star. I first heard their power pop tunes like "Shake Some Action" and loved it, but I might actually prefer their early, bluesy stuff. The best of that early 70s era sounds like the Stones refracted through the spirit of the Stooges with a dollop of pop sugar added in. 

"Texas Border" is just an absolutely ripping riff, one of the few variations on "Louie, Louie" that actually manages to equal the original. It was the kind of thing countless bands (like the Kingsmen themselves) were doing back in the mid-60s. There were armadas of groups coming out of the garage wanting to imitate the Stones and Beatles and making up for their ineptitude with attitude and noise. The Groovies had better chops, though. The band is tighter than a cheapskate's fist and it just flat out races like a souped up Camaro street racing on a Saturday night. 

I promise to write more. Soon will come summer and the ability to think again. 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Saying Goodbye To My Virtual Classroom

This past week I got new marching orders. From now until the end of the school year I am going to be teaching face to face in the classroom five days a week, as opposed to two. This weekend it suddenly hit me: I have perhaps taught my last class from home.

I have used four different spaces in my home as a classroom in the past year, all depending on availability and who was at home at the time. When it's been warm I have preferred our screened-in back porch. When I am here and my kids are too I've used either my office nook at the top of the stairs, or the guest bedroom if it was especially loud in the house. On those rare days when I was home alone I would use the dining room table, with our beautiful glassed-in cherry wood bookcase as a background. 

Gone are the days of frantically preparing lunch for my children and desperately trying to keep them on task while I had my own work to do. Gone are the days as well of taking my laptop to the breakfast table at 7AM, the only hope I had of processing all of the mountains of work that needed to be done that day.

I will miss having a commute of one minute, and that is all I will miss. Parenting and teaching simultaneously is a nearly impossible task. It's also just really hard for me to concentrate on my work when I'm at home. Everything took more time to do, and while at home 11-12 hour work days were pretty regular. 

The blurring of work and personal life has also been giving me a headache. A little compartmentalization is a good thing. I remember back to this fall when I watched the webcast of my aunt's funeral in Texas between teaching classes on my back porch. I was bawling my eyes out with my kids nagging me for attention while checking the clock to see when I had to be back in the classroom. I should have taken a personal day, but that just seemed weird considering I was already at home.

Leaving the virtual classroom behind is a reminder to me of the sacrifices and adjustments I have been forced to make over the past year. I despair thinking of how many of them will be made permanent. Every day I powered through a ridiculous amount of work while being my children's cook, nurse, and teacher's aide was a victory for the bosses. They could be oh so pleased that their employees didn't abandon them. We do it for the kids and not for the money, and I worry that makes us suckers. 

So goodbye, virtual classroom. As exhausting as teaching hybrid is, I hope I can avoid you forever.


Saturday, April 17, 2021

On Gambling Movies

One thing I love about the Criterion Channel is how they gather films into special collections and series by theme, style, and genre. Right now I am really enjoying The Gamblers, a set of films about gambling and gamblers made from the 1940s to the 1990s. As is usual with these collections, some films are old favorites, some are ones I have wanted to explore, and some I've never heard of and am glad to have on my radar. 

This by the way is an argument for streaming services to do more curation. So many just shotgun blast content out there without offering viewers a chance for deeper engagement and new discoveries. But I digress...

I've always felt a little weird about gambling because I have personally seen how people can get addicted, and I tend to have a risk averse personality. I enjoy it, but only if the stakes are low. There is a real kind of thrill when one wins, it feels like you've managed to get one over on the universe. The losses, of course, just reinforce the cruel, capricious hand of fate's rule over our lives. And as in life, the game is rigged and you lose on more days than you win. Gambling is something that makes the reality of human existence a little too real. 

Of course, that makes it a great subject for movies. Here are some of my favorites:


I just rewatched this one, which I've seen a few times. I saw it first in an art theater back in my Chicago days and fell in love, then acquired a VHS tape when a local video store went out of business. It's the movie that put Clive Owen on the map, playing a struggling author who returns to being a casino dealer out of boredom and desperation. I don't want to give too much away, but the title character is someone who enjoys gambling without ever wanting to place a bet. He knows it's a loser's game, and sees gamblers' quest to get one over on the universe as a sign of delusion and selfishness. (It doesn't help that his dad was a gambler.) I love a good neo-noir and this is a great little hard gem of a film. 

The Hustler

I am a sucker for a certain kind of gritty 1960s movie shot in black and white with a jazzy score saturated in cigarette smoke. Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason, and George C Scott is a helluva combo. 

California Split

Gambling seems to be a perfect subject for Robert Altman, whose films captured the small disappointments of life so well. What I love about this film is how well it captures the places where truly degenerate gamblers get their fix. It's not Rat Pack Vegas, it's smoke-filled poker rooms and racetracks with fifty layers of spilled beer and soda absorbed into their floors. There's a lesson here too, about how even when you come out ahead you never win because the true gambler can never be satisfied. This film also uses Altman's signature overlapping dialogue more effectively than any other since poker table talk lends itself to this method.

Lost in America

This one is cheating a little because the entire film isn't about gambling, but it's most famous scenes certainly are. This is the tale of an 80s yuppie couple played by Albert Brooks (also the filmmaker) and Julie Hagerty to decide to leave their corporate LA life and go cross country in an RV. Their first stop is Vegas, where they lose all of their travel money in one night due to the Hagerty character falling into a gambling frenzy. The scene where Brooks tries to convince the casino boss to give him his money back is hilarious as well as a great satire on affluent types who think the consequences don't apply to them. For the first time he can't get out of it because in a casino the house always wins. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

New Podcast on Reinventions

I have kept my promise to keep the podcast episodes coming, and I have to say it's been quite enjoyable to put them together. This fortnight's episode of Old Dad's Records is all about reinventions. I realized the other day that it's ten years to the month that I made my first steps at leaving academia and entering the private school world, so that's where the theme came from. I talk Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," Bob Seger's Night Moves, and Lana Del Rey's latest. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Back to the Trenches

Today was my first day back at my job after spring break and I don't think I've ever had a more difficult return to work after break. I reached a state of blissful normality during my two weeks off, feeling more relaxed than I have at any time since the start of the pandemic. I spent the summer in a constant state of anxiety over what awaited me this year, the holiday break had plenty of stress as well as the former president trying to subvert democracy. 

Spring break reminded me of the scenes in All Quiet on the Western Front when Paul goes home from the trenches on leave. It seems as if he has entered a completely different world. Well today I was back in the trenches, and it was a rude awakening. I liked seeing my students again, but I was so tired and worn out, not just in my body, but in my soul.

Today was one of the days when I had to be my daughters' teaching assistant, janitor, and cook all while trying to do my own full-time teacher job. (My wife's school requires her to be at school every day.) In terms of my own job teaching via Zoom is like swimming with twenty pound weights on your ankles. (Doing hybrid is like forty pound weights.) 

This just isn't sustainable. I had been in the trenches so long that I guess I had adapted to the insanity of my daily routine. Now that I have had a break I wonder if I am capable of seeing this through to the finish line. The end is within sight, but I am just out of gas.

I feel the fatigue in my soul because others just haven't bothered to help, which is just flat out demoralizing. As my wife said the other day, we have been working so hard that we've done as much work already this year as we normally did in a whole school year. My body and soul know this, and think that means it's time to shut down. The thing that's hard to take is that all of this work and all of this difficulty will not result in any reward. No raise, no promotion, no thanks beyond lip service. 

And so I shoulder my pack and go back to the trenches and grimly go about my duty. I am resigned to that for the time being, but hoping like hell the Armistice comes before I lose my grip completely.